That player is John Klingberg.
Klingberg started this season as a great story. The talk of his potential served as a bright spot during a dark first half for the Stars. However, his consistent high-level play, and a monster month of January have forced the John Klingberg narrative into as much about the present as it is about the future. While still in the honeymoon phase of his NHL career, Klingberg has emerged as a pivotal piece on a Stars team trying to string together another later-season run to the playoffs.
The former 5th-round pick from 2010 has been extremely impressive since his arrival to the NHL. If you've watched him, you likely don't need any further evidence of that beyond his play. However, the statistical backup is there.
He currently ranks 6th among all rookies in scoring this year with 24 points. He is one of only two defensemen in that group, joining last year's #1 overall pick, Aaron Ekblad of the Florida Panthers. It's also worth noting that since Klingberg began the year in the AHL and did not get called to Dallas until the second week of November, he has played in at least ten fewer games than everyone ahead of him. He also ranks 9th in rookie goal scoring with nine goals, leading all first-year defensemen - two ahead of Ekblad. Klingberg ranks 3rd in rookie time on ice at 21:13 per game. All in all, not bad numbers for a first-year guy. But what about when you remove the rookie tag, and grade him as an overall NHL defenseman?
It turns out that Klingberg's numbers hold up there as well. The Stars blueliner has 24 points this season, tied for 32nd among all NHL defensemen. His nine goals are tied for 14th. Who is he tied with? Among others, a couple of guys named Kris Letang and Roman Josi. Maybe you've heard of them.
Klingberg currently sits 5th on the Stars in team scoring, trailing only Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Jason Spezza, and Trevor Daley (by a single point). He is the co-leader on the Stars in +/- with a rating of +9. He is putting together one of the most storied offensive campaigns by a rookie defensemen in Stars history. He has already set the record for most goals by a Dallas rookie defensemen, and is one of only two rookie blueliners to register a 20-point season (Matt Niskanen, 26 points in 2007-2008). On Saturday, he became the first ever rookie defenseman to record a four-point game for the Stars.
Additionally, there are certain things that don't always show up in the stats that Klingberg brings to the Stars. With offensive numbers like his, you sometimes have to deal with a liability in your own zone. However, for all the lauding of his offensive prowess, Head Coach Lindy Ruff has been just as quick to point out his steady play at the other end of the ice. Klingberg has demonstrated a great first-pass, terrific escapability from a forecheck, and decision-making well beyond his years. Ruff also praised his battle and compete level, especially since clubs have started to physically target the undersized, 6'2", 180 lbs. rookie. Ruff recently called Klingberg one of the "pound-for-pound" top battlers on his blue line. He attributed a lot of that to his competitiveness.
It is that competitiveness that helps play a key role in his importance to the Stars. As much as the aforementioned numbers tell a story, the timing that Klingberg has been able to display with his offensive contributions is just as telling. Five of Klingberg's nine goals have been either game-tying or go-ahead goals. Literally from his first NHL goal - a gorgeous move, that kicked off a three-goal, third period rally for a victory - Klingberg has found a way to continually light a spark. The Stars are 7-0 when Klingberg scores a goal. They are 11-3-1 when he registers a point. Overall, Dallas is 19-13-3 (.586) with Klingberg in the lineup, as opposed to 4-6-4 (.429) without.
It was another one of those sparks that potentially helped save last week for the Stars.
On Tuesday, Dallas came out of the break with a 3-2 loss to Montreal. It was another 40-plus shot game with nothing to show for it. All of a sudden, the Stars - who had scratched and clawed their way back into the playoff picture - had won just three of their previous ten games. They faced two more games on a pivotal road trip and needed points badly. After taking control immediately against the Ottawa Senators, the Stars began to fizzle. A once-dominant 3-0 lead evaporated into a tie game early in the third period. With the Stars reeling, and at a potential crossroad for the road trip (and possibly season), midway through the third period, Klingberg took matters into his own hands.
That's not necessarily the setting for a boy-faced, 22-year old, rookie defenseman to emerge. Yet, there he was. Again. Proving that John Klingberg is no ordinary 22-year old defenseman.
The Stars need a lot of things to happen in order to surface from the group of teams fighting over the final playoff spots. One of those things is the ability to have players step up in key situations. Klingberg has shown he has a knack to do exactly that. Because of that, down the stretch the Stars will find themselves looking to a guy who has fewer than three months of NHL experience, and started the season in the minors. As crazy as that sounds, even crazier is that he seems completely prepared and ready for that responsibility.
On Monday, Klingberg was recognized by the league as the NHL's Rookie of the Month for January. He posted 13 points in 13 games. That tied him with Jamie Benn for the most points of any Stars player during the month. More than Tyler Seguin. More than Jason Spezza. More than everyone else on the Stars, and every other rookie in the NHL. If he can continue to lead a Dallas charge over the final ten weeks, it might not be the last time the NHL looks his way when determining awards for rookies.
Regardless of any league-wide recognition though, his importance to the Stars is solidified. He is on the top defensive pairing. He is quaterbacking the #1 power play unit. He is averaging over 21 minutes a game. He is being relied upon nightly to provide big plays in big situations, at both ends of the ice.
John Klingberg is no longer a player you need to know for the coming years. He's a player you need to know right now.
And he's a player the Stars are hoping can help carry them in a two-and-a-half month sprint to the finish line.
The Stars return home for a pair of games, before heading back out on the road this weekend. Here are a few things to keep 'On the Radar' this week:
In two of the next three weeks, the Stars have four scheduled games. This week they will play four games in six nights from Tuesday through Sunday. Then, following a three-game week next week, it's another Tuesday-to-Sunday quartet beginning on February 17. All told, beginning February 3, the Stars will play 11 games in 20 nights. After that, they finish with 22 games in 48 nights. So far this season, the Stars have fared quite well when dealing with four-game weeks. It has happened three times this season, and the Stars have posted records of 2-2, 3-0-1, and 3-1. With four out of the final ten weeks providing four games, they will need to duplicate those types of positive results.
The Stars will play 13 games in February and three of them will come against the Colorado Avalanche. Dallas and Colorado enter this week tied in the standings, with the Stars having played one fewer game than the Avs. Colorado has won both meetings so far this season - a 5-2 win on November 29 and a 4-3 win on January 10. Both games were played in Denver. Two of the three meetings in February will come at American Airlines Center - this week's opener on February 3, and the last game of the month on February 27. Sandwiched in between is the Stars final trip to the Pepsi Center on February 14.
Back to Buffalo
It likely won't be as emotional as last year's trip, but this week marks the Stars lone visit of the season to Buffalo, where Lindy Ruff spent 15 years as a coach and 10 years as a player. Last year's game was a roller-coaster in an already tense setting. Dallas jumped out a 3-1 first period lead, eventually built a 4-1 advantage, only to allow two second-period goals to the Sabres making it a one-goal game. The Stars were outshot 9-5 in the final period, but held off Buffalo to give Ruff the 4-3 victory in his first trip back. While the fanfare won't be the same this time around, Saturday still promises to hold a little something extra for the Stars bench boss.
Josh Bogorad is the Pre-Game, Post-Game, and Intermission host for Stars television broadcasts. He can be seen 30 minutes before face-off on ‘Stars Live’ and immediately after games all season long on Fox Sports Southwest. Follow him on Twitter at @JoshBogorad.